How I won over my Southern mom with vegan recipes

Illustrations by Maria Alconada Brooks

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It was a snow day during my junior year of high school when I decided to become a vegetarian. Padding into the cold kitchen with socked feet, I cooked myself a black bean quesadilla and decided, once and for all, that I was done with meat.

If you’d asked why, I would’ve told you some of the statistics I’d learned during my many hours online: the disparate effects of the methane that cattle farming produces, or how much water it takes to produce a hamburger. Climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, I acknowledged, but it will also require lifestyle changes from all of us. My diet was a small act of agency in contrast to the powerlessness I felt as a young person on a warming planet.

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I said some of this when I announced the decision to my mother, a practical woman who was the daughter of a tobacco farmer turned butcher. But she had only one concern: “What am I going to fix you?”

For my mother, her chili spaghetti and country ham sandwiches were never political; they were foods she’d always eaten as the oldest daughter of eight children. Her dad, George, raised cows, pigs and chickens on their farm in Augusta, a small town in Kentucky. When she was still a toddler, he sold off the livestock and bought a grocery store along Second Street.

Her mother, Mary Helen, cooked three meals a day out of whatever was left when the day was done: browned pork chops, roast beef, tenderloin steaks and crispy fried chicken. Vegetables were cooked into creamy casseroles or simmered in broth with a ham hock. Her brothers ate the squirrels, rabbits and venison they hunted with the family beagles.

“We ate well,” she always told me. “But you had to be quick. If you didn’t get there in time, there wasn’t a whole lot left.”

But she never cooked with her mom; there was simply too much to be done. During meal prep, the kitchen was strictly off-limits, lest an errant elbow send her pan splattering to the floor. And in the hallway-sized kitchen of my own childhood, the rule was the same: “Stay out of my kitchen while I’m cooking.”

When my mom and I began cooking together, it was only out of necessity. Upon my first vegan Thanksgiving, we struck a deal: We could have a plant-based meal, but only if I planned the menu and helped prepare it.

Initially, I was hesitant to attempt vegan copies of our family favorites. I was already sheepish about inconveniencing everyone with my dietary choices, so I certainly wasn’t bold enough to think a Tofurky loaf could stand up to country ham.

Instead, we went heavy on the sides: mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, boxed stuffing mix, brothy green beans and store-bought rolls. It was only later that we learned to magic cashews into sauce for macaroni and cheese; transform mushrooms into an umami gravy; and make anything taste like bacon with a baste of soy sauce, liquid smoke and paprika.

The food was good, and that surprised us. But what surprised us more was that we were a great team: The daughter of a butcher and her vegan daughter could really cook. We developed a rhythm, getting used to passing each other a paring knife with telepathy, or coordinating the oven temperature to finish the casseroles at the perfect time. Into the night, we listened to Shania Twain’s greatest hits and drank bourbon-spiked eggnog as we snapped the green beans — by hand, always. And when one of my sisters tried to peer into whatever we had simmering on the stove, we shouted in unison: “Get out of my kitchen!”

And as we worked, she told me stories about her foremothers and their kitchens. Her grandma Gladys, whom we all called Mamaw Bach, was a prolific baker famous for her blackberry pie and Christmas sugar cookies. Although most of the women in my family, including my mom, never wrote their recipes down, many of Mamaw Bach’s recipes were memorialized in a cookbook to raise money for the local fire department.

Over the eight years since that first quesadilla, we’ve found new life for her family recipes, making vegan versions of Southern favorites with an alchemy of good vegetables, strong spices and the love of a crowded table.

After all, my mom and I have learned, the essence of Southern cooking isn’t what you make. It’s the labor of love sweating over a hot stove; it’s the joy of peeling back tinfoil on a porcelain casserole dish and saying, “Fix yourself a plate.”

Looking to put your own twist on family recipes with a plant-based bent? Here are some places to start, featuring tried and true tips from our friends at Voraciously:

One great mac and cheese recipe

My mom and I have tried just about every mac and cheese recipe we can find. To our surprise, our biggest successes haven’t been based on fancy vegan cheeses (though I do recommend Miyoko’s); rather, we prefer cashew-based sauces baked in a cast-iron skillet and topped with breadcrumbs. As it happens, food editor Joe Yonan has found this to be true as well. His vegan mac and cheese recipe relies on miso for saltiness, carrots for color and nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor.

My family’s braised green of choice was always kale. In Black foodways, braised collards are a staple, as food writer and recipe developer Aaron Hutcherson writes. They’re typically seasoned with meat, which produces a smoky umami flavor that’s tough to replicate — but not impossible. Enter this recipe for vegan Southern-style collard greens, which get their flavor profile from red miso paste and smoked paprika.

When you’re finished peeling the carrots and cutting the onions for your mac and cheese, you don’t need to throw them out. Save the trimmings as you cook, along with your other vegetable scraps, and stash them in the freezer, recommends Yonan. Then you can make them into this low-waste vegetable stock that keeps in the freezer for three months.

7 recipes to use up vegetable scraps for low-waste cooking

Don’t forget to write it all down

In the throats of the first pandemic fall, Julia Turshen created a guide to making a family cookbook: a collection of recipes by and for loved ones. “In missing the things that help us feel present, we feel untethered,” she wrote. “Making a family cookbook, a collection of recipes by and for loved ones, is one way to combat this feeling. It’s a sure way to feel connected and purposeful.”

Although restrictions have eased since, these tips for honoring your family’s recipes are still salient, whether you are enduring grievance, live apart from your family or just want to preserve them for posterity’s sake.

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